DRIVING IN THE CAR WITH ALEX NOVA
POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don’t get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE’s purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.
Alex Nova owns Los Angeles, and everyone else just sorta borrows it from him and hangs out there from time to time. Alex Nova makes geography a verb. Alex Nova drives and we just ride along. Here’s a story:
Alex Nova isn’t really Alex Nova, but I named him that almost instantly after we met. The second or third thing he said to me was deflecting some sort of hoity-toity California Boy Bullshit I threw at him, so he said something along the lines of Dude, guess which car I drive? while Vanna-Whiting a row of SUVs clogging this street in Venice. The only not-SUV is the gunmetal silver ’74 Nova.
Alex Nova, I say. I just gave you a superhero name.
He showed me his identification from years past. In one, he looks like a swarthy Cuban pimp who’d pick his teeth with a long dirty knife. In one he looks like a washed-out Jeff Spicoli, sunbleached hair and dopebleached smile. Today, Alex Nova looks compact, efficient. Good looking, proud nose. Surfer’s hair, inexplicably and chaotically perfect. Tanned and accidentally stacked. Smiles. Alex Nova smiles a lot, and I like that about him. He radiates competence and trust, and no matter how hectic things get, he grins a little and you think, well, how bad can it be? Alex Nova is here.
I don’t understand how people can radiate their own inner calm, let alone have it be the inner calm that’s borne of utter and total reliability. Alex Nova is calm because Alex Nova knows he’ll get the job done, and he’ll get it done right, and he’ll get it done sooner than you need it and better than you expected it. I hate and admire Alex Nova for that, because it’s a trait hugely lacking in me.
Everyone in my pantsphone now has a superhero name, and it started with Alex Nova.
It’s midnight and there’s no end in sight. Alex Nova, Co-Genius Ben, Manpaste are standing outside of a bar named after some boxer and it’s almost chilly in Venice, California. I’m wearing Manpaste’s shirt, because the shirt I brought had blood on it.
Not my blood, you know what I’m saying? A-HAW HAW HAW HAW, I cackle when he asks if that’s blood on the sleeve. It’s not blood, it’s the red paint from when I did up me and Kel’s bedroom when she went to Florida, but no one ever believes me when I tell them that. Go for the joke, right? That’s what Groucho says, so you do. Executive decision: Manpaste says don’t wear the shirt with blood on it. Gives executives the wrong idea.
Anyway. The new shirt is silver and shiny, like Alex Nova’s namesake. We round robin a conversation reconstructing this remarkable day while a bum circles our circle, throwing in comments to match our own. I mention doing the DVD commentary for the RESFEST disc this year, and the bum goes DVD commentary? Oh my lord.
Later he’ll thank us for letting him hear how rich folk talk. Rich folk. I laugh my ass off at that one.
Alex Nova has something wrong with his ears, and he requires some sort of deliberate ear-trepanation to mend it. The next day he’s getting holes bored into him, or he’s already HAD holes bored in to him, I don’t know, it’s hard to follow, but there’s an ear doctor poking around Alex Nova’s brain tomorrow with a power drill and he’ll find me and Co-Genius Ben thereafter. It’s midnight and the job never ends, The Executives have asked for big blowup boards of the work we presented this afternoon for them to focus-group starting Tuesday. That means working late Thursday, outputting late Friday, Alex Nova picks ’em up mounted on Monday and couriers them over to The Executives on Monday afternoon.
I am in Los Angeles to pitch a Big Gig.
I have slept no more than three hours a night for the fourteen previous days. If my math is right, and I’m tired so it’s probably not, this equals out to a day gained for every third lived, assuming people sleep about seven or eight hours a night. I’ve stolen almost five days off of the end of my life. The Big Gig was a massive and brain-bashing effort, one that’s left me jelly inside and out. On top of, you know, the other Big Gigs running concurrent and, oh, getting married in a week. I don’t have all my words anymore, and my brain begins grabbing nearest-like words from my internal dictionary. “Telephone” might be ‘telegraph,’ things like that. Nouns are largely replaced with “the thing” or ‘the guy.’
Alex Nova drives us home. When you go through a green light, or past a stop sign that you’ve stopped for, or have started up from a dead stop whatever, you must push the gas pedal down very, very far. This will ensure you are waiting at another stop sooner than if you take your time getting to it. Somehow, Alex Nova bends logic around his steering wheel. The V-8 purrs. It sounds like a kid making car sounds. NNNNNNNNNNN! NNNNNNNNNN! NNNNNNNNNN! Gear-shifting ever-onwards to a joyous highway god of diesel and soot.
We go back to the hotel after our Red Bull Victory Hour at the boxer’s bar and get back to work, blowing the images up big. Monkey work, really, but time-eating all the same. Not much you can do but do it, and do it well. Co-Genius Ben shows me all kinds of weird trickery, little cheat codes that people like Co-Genius Ben know from making Photoshop and After Effects a grammar instead of merely a profession.
One night, Co-Genius Ben woke up to discover he’d been sleep-arting. Several hours had passed and he’d fallen asleep but kept working. He’d made things with no recollection of how he did it. Co-Genius Ben dreams in alpha channels and has a work ethic so hard you could cut diamonds with it.
Apparently I am in Los Angeles, but I’ve not seen much more than a hotel room. It’s an alright room in a Venice beach house. It looks quaint, until the details creep in from the periphery and give one the Grand Mal Heebie Jeebies. You think Martha Stewart, at first, until you notice the horrible stains on the drapes; the rust on the lamp; the wall like a giant pincushion. I push it in with a fingertip and am honestly surprised when blood does not come running out. Breaking the rules, we smoke, cobbling ashtrays out of potted-plant basins and empty cups of coffee. This is important.
Sleep with the windows open and you can almost hear the surf crashing over the car horns.
The longer and harder you push yourself, the more your conscious mind shuts the hell up and allows pure will to be the driver. The complaints and self-pity that come with intolerable volumes of work and insurmountable deadlines fall away. I complain and self-pity a lot. There comes a definite phase of my work routine where I just want to fold my arms and pout. Eventually, you self-automate, you robot the shit out of your to-do list, and it all gets done. Dreams mimic waking life: I wake up, work for 21 hours, lie down, dream about working for three hours, get up and do it again. The whining falls away after day six, and there’s nothing left to me but Get Stuff Done. I keep telling myself that I’m getting married the following weekend, so certainly this will all stop sometime, right? At least by Sunday.
It takes us two and a half hours to get to the meeting in Burbank from Venice; I could fly from KC to LA in that same time. I bring this up in the meeting when it’s pondered how effective we could be in the middle of nowhere. Clogged in traffic like bacon through a fat man’s heart, I put on my headphones and zone in on tempo, heartbeat. Grade-A Sony Rock Zen at brain-piercing decibels. Everyone else in the truck talks, laughs, and goes over the Big Gig one last time. I’ve gotten all I’m gonna get and need to pull my brain together. We’re trapped on the 405 like pigs in a corral.
We do the thing and go to the bar and go to the creepy motel and go to bed. We wake up, me and Co-Genius Ben, and go to the pier. It’s the only time LA has been LA since we’ve arrived. We watch the surfers wait out the overcast day. I become immediately fond of a guy that’s gotta be in his fifties, out there with kids my age and younger. We name him Old Dude and cheer him on. He vanishes underneath the pier and emerges on the other side addicted to anonymous sex and heroin. Alas. I’ll keep his milk carton photograph near my heart always.
Co-Genius Ben tells me he broke his arm four times in one year when he skated. After the fourth time, his father gave him a gift: all of his skate gear, decks, trucks, the whole nine, all of it neatly sawed in half and gift-wrapped in a big box. The other present was a surfboard, and Co-Genius Ben learned to surf.
The thing about surfers is that they make it look easy. I thought the same thing watching Bob Bernquist skating the monster-half at X Games. The guy looked bored, like there was nothing at all to what he did. He won the competition in one run and knew it as it happened. He leapt to the top of the ramp and held the board up over his head and it was like some kind of accidental poetry. Kids like him aren’t supposed to be poetic, yet there he was, mauling physics and logic in a Suicidal Tendencies T-Shirt.
They were a Venice gang, back in the day, I’m told. Suicidal Tendencies. The street Manpaste lives on used to be a warzone of burning furniture and tricked-out El Caminos, rewritten over the Lizard King skanking around the alleys at night convincing everyone he really is a deep and profound rockstar. You can see it built up like layers of too-thin White Out over the bad mistake you can’t ever seem to cover up. History transmutes physically through fucked up dumb architecture. Now Venice is gentrified by dot-kid boutiques and minimal stuff for maximum price.
Alex Nova is done with his trepanation and picks us up. We have to go to Kinko’s; we have to tool around for a while. This is where the genius of Alex Nova creeps in.
The most important tool in Alex Nova’s formidable drivin’ arsenal is his left arm. With it, he stops entire arteries of traffic cold, he redirects streaming eddies of cars that have no right to be doing what they’re doing, he gives praise and condemns with great fury. His arm dangles out of the driver’s side and it becomes an extension of his will. We cut across eight lanes safely because of that arm. It’s like being in a Manhattan cab, only it’s Alex Nova driving like Buddha at Le Mans, so you smile and scream.
We drive by Robert Evans’ house. I recognize it from its hedges. I go into Evansspeak for a while: The Place? Beverly Hills. The time? Now. The guy? Robert Evans. Is he here? No he is not. Do I wish he were? Do I ever.
No one gets me but me.
I’m sliding around in the back seat. My two bags are taking up the rest of the negative space. My eyes are closed, sunlight making my shut eyelids flicker like a dream machine. I was told that if you do it long enough, those flashes of red send you into alpha-level hypnosis. I hypnotized a guy once to say weird shit on weirder trigger words. His name was Coa.
Swimming in cosmic coincidence. Working on the pitch, I think about Bob Greene for no apparent reason; the next day he’s fired from his gig for diddling a teenage reader. I think about when I quit smoking with an herbal faux-tobacco blend, and that night Timmy buys a bag of it. Several POPLIFE readers point out that ‘John Boone,’ a character in my Mars thing who told me his name in a dream, is in fact also a character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s MARS trilogy, a trilogy which I deliberately avoided reading and know nothing about. Ideaspace is real, and weird.
The Big Gig Meeting goes unreal. They eat out of our hands. We dance on the tables and they give us their paychecks. We run the room like rockstars. I make one of The Executives dangle and twist for making a Kansas City crack, and encourage her to learn to swim. It’s the standard by which all other pitches will be measured by. Even Manpaste, hard and cold vet of hundreds of pitches has never had one that went this well. We’re in the can after the pitch, and I start to giggle when he shhhhs me and points up. The walls have ears, even in the can. Later he tells a story about someone getting nailed for speaking freely in the bathroom.
We fuck around in the parking lot; we take lots of pictures. Certainly our every move was filmed. Took us fifteen minutes to clear security coming in. It gets uncomfortable. Now I have a barcode. Now we’re dicking around in the parking lot and I’m surprised we’re not asked to leave.
Later we lose the camera to the maw of the hotel: room karma is real, and us smoking meant we had to lose something to balance it out. How can hotels not have ghosts, not feel haunted? All those lives congealing in one place over time, ghosts get like dust on window frames. We sleep in Aimee Semple MacPherson’s room, it’s like bedding down in a coiled antennae pointed up to god. Of course we lose the camera. We broke the rules.
Somewhere, Alex Nova fidgets, waiting for us to call him from the 405 and scream into the phone. I want to stop thinking about TV psychology and psychographics. Telepataphysics, brandalizing the world, all this bullshit language made up to sound like you either earned your MFA or you’re a new media savant. This is what we get paid for. Being located the middle of nowhere makes it seem like we’re all a bunch of Howard Hugheses, our demo reel the Spruce Goose of design and motion. We play it up. It’s not New York or LA thinking, says Executive Lady. Yeah.
Antsy in the back of the car as we race with a Producer or a Writer or a Director or someone down Mullholland. I want these comics I’ve been writing to come out. The limbo lasts forever and schedules are infinitely mutable. Work gets done and waits to be hatched from the steady hands of brilliant men. So meanwhile I’m two-timing you all by dissecting my friends and showing the Enemy how we work: I am my own supervillain. Walt Kelly laughs and Walt Disney schemes to enhance his cradle-to-grave media portfolio. I’m just a patsy. Los Angeles is splayed out like a Mayan mini-mall; the sky thick with crap and it all looks deliberately peripheral. You could see the ocean if you could see it. I’m careening through Los Angeles, I am a human bullet fired at the heart of everything. I want to go home. This isn’t really my job. I’m supposed to be getting married. I have Godzilla movies to watch. I want to sleep at the bottom of an ocean so blue you think it’s sky, sleep there for a thousand years.